What Should We Make of A. W. Tozer?

John ArmstrongSpirituality

The famous A. W. Tozer (1897-1963) is widely respected by many modern evangelical Christians. He is the author of fifty-plus books and is often referred to, rightly I believe, as “an evangelical mystic.” When Tozer was alive he was not so widely respected precisely because he was so profoundly prophetic. His writing often irritated people and made many leaders nervous. He was unsparing in stating his concern for how he saw evangelicalism selling itself out and this was all the way back in the 1950s. Now his words have proven accurate in most every way imaginable. I guess most prophets are heard after they’re gone!

Born in 1893, in Newburg, Pennsylvania, Aiden Wilson Tozer was converted at the age of 18. He had no formal training but began a lifelong pastoral ministry in the Christian Missionary Alliance in 1919. (One thinks of other great ministers who had no formal training, including C. H. Spurgeon, who was never ordained either!)
What made A. W. Tozer stand out was his intense devotion joined with his obvious mysticism. He deeply appreciated the great mystical writers such as Fénelon, Bernard of Cluny, Bernard of Clarivaux, and Julian of Norwich. (One notes here that reading Catholics was no problem to Tozer and that this was happening long before Vatican II and in a time when Tozer’s peers did not generally read Catholic writers at all.) He also enjoyed devotional poetry, the hymns of the mystics, and even the writings of both Emerson and Shakespeare. All of these impacted both his pulpit ministry and his writing. In everything that he wrote A. W. Tozer’s primary burden was to urge his readers to “know the Lord” experientially.

What many today do not realize about Tozer is that he often operated “outside the box.” Some years ago I read his most famous book, The Knowledge of the Holy, and as a result of this book, and J. I. Packer’s Knowing God, I preached a long sermon series on the doctrine of God.

In the preface to Tozer’s classic he writes:

As sunlight falls free on the open field, so the knowledge of the holy God is a free gift to men who are open to receive it. But this knowledge is difficult because there are conditions to be met and the obstinate nature of fallen man does not take kindly to them.

I will say more about all of this tomorrow, even listing the conditions Tozer spells out in this classic. But for now I wonder how most evangelicals “hear” the words “conditions to be met” in our present theological and cultural context. I have to believe most would reject Tozer’s ideas almost entirely. I do not. I see no real conflict at all between salvation as a free gift and salvation involving “meeting conditions.” I accept free gifts all the time that involve conditions. I was given some great Father’s Day gifts but I had to take the gifts, open them, and unpack them in order to enjoy the free gifts I was given.

Evangelicals, in general, have thought of grace as so free that they have wrongly concluded that there is nothing we do, no conditions on our part at all. “Just show up.” Nothing else matters. We can do anything, be whatever we want to be and in the end if we showed up, at least once in response to a message that we heard, then we are saved for all eternity. Children pray "sinner’s prayers" and turn out as virtual atheists and we call them Christians! Adults go through motions at an evangelism campaign and we assure them, not matter what they do afterwards, that they will go to heaven. The statistics to back this up are so obvious as to be beyond serious doubt.

This kind of thinking sees salvation as simply a point in time. The Bible sees it as having a beginning but it also sees it as having a middle and an end, or as a whole process. In the Bible the big wide-angle lens for viewing salvation is “union with Christ,” not accepting Jesus as your personal Savior. Our whole terminology is messed up and our theology is even more messed up. The tragic result is a generation of millions of “evangelicals” who really do believe there are no conditions at all. Tozer would blow this away and thus he would never be invited to speak at many of our large churches and conferences any more than he was in his own time. I rather like him because he was so prophetic but he sure makes people nervous. I do not always agree with him either but then if I did I would not need to read him as carefully I do.